Lifeboat Ethics, Welfare, and Immigration

Note: The following post is based on the writings of Garrett Hardin (1974), Julian Simon (1996), and a talk given by Nobel Prize Winner Milton Friedman (

Lifeboat Ethics and Immigration

Garett Hardin uses the metaphor of a lifeboat to illustrate his fear of immigration bringing about the Tragedy of the Commons. He imagines us – the USA – in a lifeboat that, of course, is limited in capacity. Here we sit fending for our survival day to day and look over to other VERY crowded lifeboats (other less fortunate countries) that are sinking. These lifeboats begin kicking people out (or the people just leave the hostile lifeboat) who then swim over to us and ask to be let in. The problem, as Hardin believes, is that we only have so much space (or resources) to spare. We can’t let ALL of them in as there are more people then there are spaces. To avoid the hard decisions of deciding who shall live (by coming aboard) and who shall die or at least exist miserably, Hardin proposes that nothing be done — let them swim somewhere else and figure out their own problems.

Right away some people get very upset at Hardin’s attitude. But before we release the lynch mob, understand where Hardin’s position rests. Hardin assumes that people have no interest in promoting a greater cause unless coerced. (He viewed the world as Thomas Hobbes did in mid-16th century Europe, which was not a very great time to live, it would seem.) If you asked – for instance – Hardin why we pay taxes, then he would not answer “To preserve this beautiful nation’s national security, roads, leaders, and infrastructure” but rather he would answer “Because the USA government has guns and prisons.”

Hardin in the end believes that countries – and government in particular – should not interfere with one another. When left to themselves countries will find a way to survive. However, Hardin did believe that the government should dictate to its own people how to survive. Notice the difference here: Hardin believed that, say, the US government should stay out of, say, Mexico’s business when it comes to living and providing for its people, but he also believed that the US government should control what US citizens did in their day to day lives in relation to such issues as population control and the environment.

With that said, Hardin’s metaphor of lifeboat ethics – i.e., deciding on who of the masses should (must?) perish so that the few can survive – also rests on one other premise, it would seem. Those who are in the lifeboat have guaranteed access to food and other matters of sustenance (e.g., healthcare and safety) that those outside of the lifeboat do not have access to. The guarantee to access such resources suggests some type of government intervention where there exists the right to food, healthcare, and safety.

I will now say something that may disgust some – until they read the whole post and think about what it is proposing. Allowing all people to immigrate to the US in the present day (2013) is not very good for the people at large of the USA.

“How dare you say that!” Some may say.

However, notice I said “all people” and “present day”. In other words there are certain conditions in the USA right now (actually since the 1930s) that have made (illegal) immigration less appealing for the nation as a whole. If some things change, then immigration would a wonderful thing. What things need to change? What do you mean by “all people”? The answer comes in understanding how the USA is structured now compared to pre-1930s.


(I believe the original caption under this Far Side cartoon [by Gary Larson] is something like “Alright, George, I know your upset. But after all you drew the short straw and we are all starving.” source:

Lifeboat Ethics Pre- and Post the 1930s

Pre-1930s. Prior to the New Deal (or welfare policy) instituted by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, those that immigrated to the USA (or came into the lifeboat) faced a world with no guarantees. The person preparing to immigrate KNEW coming aboard the USA lifeboat that they would have to hack out their living with their own two hands or starve and suffer (local Churches and neighbors had [and still have] only so much to give to help those less fortunate). In other words, the lifeboat of the USA prior to the 1930s did not guarantee Nirvana (or an improvement on the soon-to-be immigrant’s current living condition), but rather the USA lifeboat provided the “survivor” / immigrant opportunity (or freedom) to use whatever resources they had or could acquire (through know-how, family, or employment) to improve their lives more so than the lifeboat (or home country) they had come from. Nirvana was not guaranteed but the access to move toward that ideal was guaranteed. Another way to think of it is this: an immigrant would not try to climb aboard the USA lifeboat (pre-1930s) without having some confidence that they could themselves survive by their own skills or acquire better skills.

Post-1930s. After welfare policies – like social security, food stamps, and other living subsidies – were passed in the 1930s something very different happened aboard the USA lifeboat. Post 1930s those coming here were now guaranteed welfare assistance or subsidies for being under qualified for higher paying jobs or living standards. In other words there was no longer a need to acquire new skills or produce because the welfare assistance the USA lifeboat guaranteed (and still guarantees) was (is) better than most other countries’ living conditions. In a sense the immigrant was doing exactly the same thing post the 1930s as before the 1930s: they were taking action to improve their circumstances. The difference however was that post the 1930s there was less incentive to improve your circumstances once you got on the USA lifeboat. A pseudo (or at least partial) Nirvana was now guaranteed, without the need to produce or act to acquire it, other than getting on the lifeboat.

The Point: We are Steadying Chairs on a Sinking Lifeboat

This past 2012 USA election – and I would assume the future elections – was about immigration: should we make it easier to immigrate or not? The answer to this question is not the critical question – right now. Rather, answering this question right now is like steadying chairs on a sinking lifeboat? What is the lifeboat I am talking about? I am talking about USA policy that creates a welfare state that is making the USA lifeboat take on water. If you remove welfare policy, then immigration reform should go in the direction of open borders. WHY? Because each immigrant coming here knows (or will find out very quickly) that they have NO guarantee to assistance but rather the opportunity to improve their situation in such a way (e.g., work and production) that benefits them and others.

“But that would mean they would have low paying jobs and work in bad conditions.” Some say.

That may be the case for a while but that is only because they choose to work in those jobs. And as they work in those jobs they acquire more skills that make them more marketable for better jobs. (Most people in the USA are not first-generation immigrants. Rather they – and their living conditions – are the product of their grandparents or great-grand parents coming here at a time when Leviathan [or the USA government] was not guaranteeing welfare but rather the opportunity to work for what you want.)

“But all these immigrants will come in here and take all our jobs away.” Some will say.

Actually this would only happen if they can offer the same skills at a lower cost. So it is in our best interest as US citizens to stay qualified and marketable. But none the less, what we are not considering is that these immigrants can do more than just take a job. They can create jobs. WHAT?

Think about it! As Julian Simon work – The Ultimate Resource – suggests, if welfare was removed and immigration made easier, some immigrants would come and take jobs at farms, factories, offices, etc. But some would not – or at least not forever take an existing job. Rather some immigrants would become entrepreneurs and need to hire workers to help them.

So, we now close with returning to Hardin’s original concern about avoiding the social dilemma of the Tragedy of the Commons. Hardin has reason to be afraid of immigration – especially if the lifeboat being boarded is a welfare state. The tragedy becomes even worse when immigrants who enter illegally can also access the benefits, which is the case in California. If welfare was removed – most likely through one-time upfront payments to government workers and current welfare recipients to avoid protests – then the boarders can be opened to all.

Consider the words inscribed on the Stature of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

(Statue of Liberty – source:

This quote is true – about there being a golden door – when the tired and poor can work their way out of their circumstances and make the lifeboat bigger and better than ever. But when gold is given (in small amounts) for free, the tired stay tired and poor stay poor. The homeless may stop being homeless (living in welfare housing) but become a slave to Leviathan who dictates to them what to buy, where to work, and how to raise their children.

The USA is not (or at least in my belief) a land of fairness but rather a land of liberty. When you make fairness your goal, sooner or later a leader or Leviathan must be created to define and dictate what is fair. When you make liberty your goal (and of course keep government to protect the people from each other and from external threats), people achieve the outcome they earn.

What are your thoughts? Let me know.


Friedman, M. 2013. Milton Friedman – Illegal Immigration – PT 1. posted by LibertyPen on Video accessed December 2, 2013.

Hardin, G. 1974. Living on a lifeboat. BioScience, 24(10): 561-568.

Simon, J. M. 1996. The ultimate resource 2. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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